Recalling a memory from Christmas past, I remember looking through a telescope my brother had set up outside on the deck of our parents home in Duluth and seeing for the first time, directly with my own eyes, the planet Saturn. I’d seen the iconic image of the ringed planet that has captivated humans for centuries many times in photographs, but actually seeing it clearly through a telescope in the crisp winter air was kind of surreal and awe inspiring.
As we experience the waning days of December, the darkest month, skywatchers have had the opportunity to observe an end-of-year celestial treat in what has become known as “Christmas Star,” in reality, the planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. For the past couple of weeks the two planets have been easily visible in the evening sky, culminating on the night of the winter solstice, Dec. 21, in a “great conjunction.”
According to the NASA.gov website, what makes this year’s conjunction so rare is that “it’s been nearly 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other in the sky, and nearly 800 years since the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter occurred at night,” giving people around the world a chance to see them. I try to imagine what the level of knowledge and enlightenment in the world around him was like when in 1610, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei “pointed his telescope to the night sky and discovered the four moons of Jupiter – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.” And in that same year, he also discovered “a strange oval surrounding Saturn, which later observations determined to be its rings. These discoveries changed how people understood the far reaches of our solar system.”
Humans have a long history of drawing inspiration and comfort from the night sky and I personally find the simple, physical act of taking a deep breath, pulling my shoulders back and looking up at the sky to be a useful component in a stress relief strategy. The winter lights we see glimmering around us today have a long symbolic history dating back to pagan rituals. Many of the modern traditions we associate with Christmas have origins in Germany. An entry on the History.com website references an enduring legend about the inspiration for the Christmas tree: “Late one evening, Martin Luther was walking home through the woods and noticed how beautifully the stars shone through the trees. He wanted to share the beauty with his wife, so he cut down a fir tree and took it home. Once inside, he placed small, lighted candles on the branches and said that it would be a symbol of the beautiful Christmas sky.”
The wide array of lights we see today are the manifestation of years of technological advancement that started in 1882 with light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison and his friend and partner Edward Johnson. Johnson created a popular window display to showcase a tree decorated with the new-fangled lights. The first manufactured strings of lights were strictly the domain of the wealthy. In 1900 you could rent a string of lights for the holiday season for $12, the equivalent of about $350 today. Now holiday lights are accessible to pretty much anyone with the desire to participate in the festive annual ritual.
I don’t think I’m imagining things when I look around this season and see what appears to be some extra special effort being put into the light displays illuminating city streets and homes around the area. In what has been an unusual and challenging year on multiple fronts, these optimistic bursts of light seem to offer glimmers of hope during the long December nights that signal the end of the year. And don’t forget to vote for your favorite local display of lights at presspubs.com/holidaylights.
Paul Dols is photojournalist/website editor for Press Publications. He can be reached at 651-407-1238 or email@example.com.